The Eyes of Willie McGee: A Tragedy of Race, Sex, and Secrets in the Jim Crow South - Alex Heard (2010)
10. COMMUNISTS COMING HERE
On February 9, 1950, Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy began to make his first national splash, telling an audience in Wheeling, West Virginia, that the State Department was infested with Communist spies. No recording of the speech survived, and people argued forever after about whether McCarthy actually said “I have here in my hand” a list of 205 known infiltrators.
Three days later, in a follow-up speech in Reno, Nevada, he lowered the number to fifty-seven but repeated the theme: America was losing the global conflict with Communism, thanks to enemies within. The Soviet Union was in control of Eastern Europe; China had become the People’s Republic on October 1, 1949; and East Germany was established on the 7th. Two weeks before that, on September 23, President Truman announced that “an atomic explosion had occurred within Russia in recent weeks,” a preface to the world’s learning that the Soviet Union definitely had the bomb.
To McCarthy—and to millions of people who believed in him—that many losses in such a short time couldn’t have been an accident. He said the people on his list, all burrowed inside the State Department, were “individuals who would appear to be either card-carrying members or certainly loyal to the Communist Party, but who nevertheless are still helping to shape our foreign policy.” These people were like Judas, selling out the United States to its enemies, but they were even more dangerous because they were motivated by ideology, not greed. “One thing to remember in discussing the Communists in our Government is that we are not dealing with spies who get 30 pieces of silver to steal the blueprints of a new weapon,” he said. “We are dealing with a far more sinister type of activity because it permits the enemy to guide and shape our policy….” He focused particular wrath on Alger Hiss, the former State Department official who on January 21 had been found guilty of two counts of perjury, one of them for denying that he had ever passed secret government documents to ex-Communist Whittaker Chambers.
Alas, the United States was about to begin dealing, very publicly, with the problem of spies who stole new weapons—a story that began to unfold on February 2, when British theoretical physicist Klaus Fuchs, who worked on the Manhattan Project, was arrested in London and charged with giving A-bomb secrets to the Russians. Over the next few months, it came out that American citizens were involved. David Greenglass, a machinist at Los Alamos who was originally from New York, was arrested in June. July and August saw the arrests of Greenglass’s brother-in-law, Julius Rosenberg, and his sister, Ethel, both of whom were eventually executed for conspiracy to commit espionage. Julius’s lawyer was Emanuel H. Bloch, a New Yorker who, up until the moment of Julius’s arrest, was devoting much of his time to the defense of Willie McGee.
Capping the first half of 1950, on Sunday, June 25, the North Korean army turned a simmering conflict into a hot war when it crossed the Thirty-eighth Parallel and invaded South Korea. The United States would be entangled in combat operations there for the next three years, at an eventual cost of more than 36,000 American lives.
Although there was never a good time for Communists to show up in Jackson, Mississippi, the summer of 1950 was as bad as it got. Nonetheless, that July rapidly moving events—pegged to McGee’s July 27 execution date—forced a confrontation between the CRC and city and state authorities.
During 1949 and early 1950, things had changed markedly in terms of public awareness about McGee’s situation. Thanks to Patterson’s tireless efforts, he was no longer obscure, and his story was now being covered in publications like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Newsweek. Recognizing this, Patterson decided to build on what the CRC had done during its anti-Bilbo fight in 1946 and 1947. This time, it would send a sizable out-of-state delegation of protesters to Jackson to sound off in hopes of stopping the execution. Once these plans became known, the city bristled in anticipation of a conflict that seemed likely to turn violent. Setting the tone was a legendary local newspaper editor who loved nothing more than a good battle: Frederick Sullens.
“Probably no U.S. editor is quite so tough, colorful, eloquent, prolific and unmindful of editorial niceties as 65-year-old, 185-pound Frederick Sullens of the Jackson (Miss.) Daily News,” Time said in a 1943 profile marking the newspaper’s fiftieth anniversary. “…[F]or 38 of those 50 years [it] has come wet from the presses bristling with Sullens’s own pugnacious personality. He is perhaps the only survivor of the old Southern-womanhood-must-be-defended school of journalism, whose exponents backed up their words with their fists and divided all office visitors into two classes: 1) those without horsewhips; 2) those with.”
Born in 1877 in Versailles, Missouri, Sullens came to Mississippi in 1897 to cover a murder trial. He didn’t like Jackson at first, but he stuck around and took a job at the city’s oldest daily, the Clarion-Ledger. The place he came to love wasn’t much to look at—population 5,000 or so, it was a backwater city with dusty streets and shabby buildings, still smarting from its Civil War days as “Chimneyville,” when it was conquered and burned before and after the fall of Vicksburg.
Jackson’s natural setting was scenic but buggy. A muddy river, the Pearl, slithered past to the east, where water moccasins wriggled about in dark, soggy woods that you could see from the bluffs downtown. There were yellow fever outbreaks every year from 1897 to 1899, and Sullens caught the disease himself. He also launched an editorial campaign to clean the city up, getting behind a $100,000 sewer system that critics considered a boondoggle.
“You can imagine my surprise and disappointment to discover it was a dingy, dreary-looking country town,” Sullens told one interviewer. “…I’ve been here ever since, and, having written millions of words in praise of Jackson, it is now rather safe to draw the conclusion that I like the place. In fact, I love it. Today I’d rather own a magnolia sapling in Jackson than the Empire State Building in New York.”
Sullens quit the Clarion-Ledger in 1905 after a fight with his publisher, who cut one of his pieces—a theatrical review—in half. (“I tore up the galleys and told him he could take his job and go to hell.”) He signed on as city editor of the Jackson Daily News; the following year he became editor and later bought the paper. There he reigned for the next half century, focusing mainly on Mississippi matters—especially politics and race—but always with an eye on national and world events.
His style of journalism was personal, vitriolic, biased, often sentimental, and he kept readers well informed about his attachments to Mississippi’s natural splendors, Pekingese dogs, and Christmas. (A holiday tradition was Sullens’s Christmas Eve editorial, described in his obituary as “lasting literature…almost Biblical in its purity.”) He could be funny in a Menckenesque way. Once, after reading that President Warren G. Harding liked to pour gravy on his waffles, he wrote, “Henceforth and hereafter suspicion and dread will dog his footsteps….” But too often he wasn’t funny at all, ranting about race, Yankees, and Communists in ways that sounded like open incitements to violence.
According to legend, Sullens would get so agitated while writing his front-page column—“The Low Down on the Higher Ups,” launched in the 1930s—that he would shed articles of clothing while he typed, ending up nearly naked. “The following item published years ago probably best exemplifies the tenor of his column,” Colliers said in a 1947 profile. “‘Jim So-and-So (naming a prominent state official) came to my office today. I beat hell out of him, his son, and his dog. If anybody else is looking for trouble, he’ll find a well-preserved man in his middle fifties well able to take care of himself.’”
He meant it. It was said that no session of the Mississippi legislature was complete without Sullens getting into a fistfight with an elected official. The most famous scrap happened in 1940, when Sullens was sixty-two, and it grew out of an old feud he had with Mississippi’s governor at the time, Paul Johnson Sr. In 1931, Johnson had run unsuccessfully for governor against Martin Sennett Conner (the winner) and Sullens’s preferred candidate, Hugh L. White. During the primary campaign, Sullens railed against Johnson so often that Johnson bundled his grievances into a libel suit, which the Daily News settled out of court, reportedly paying $18,000. During Johnson’s campaign in 1939, he bragged, “I’m still spending that buzzard’s money. I’m liable to be spending some more of it too when this campaign is over.”
The clash of the titans happened on the evening of May 2, 1940, in the lobby of an upscale downtown hotel called the Walthall, where Sullens lived in a penthouse. Johnson was in the lobby with friends, including one named Major G. W. Buck. Sullens was about to enter an elevator with his dog when the sixty-year-old governor—who was six feet three inches tall and 195 pounds—saw him, rushed past Buck, and smashed the back of Sullens’s head with a cane. “He jumped over me so fast I didn’t know what was happening until blood was shooting every which way from Sunday,” Buck told reporters.
Sullens turned and charged like a speared gorilla. “The editor whirled, knocked away the cane, and pitched the…Governor across a chair, smashing it, dropped astride him, landing furious rights and lefts in his face,” Time reported. “The embattled editor was hauled off, and trumpeting that it was ‘a cowardly attempt to assassinate me from the rear,’ was rushed to the hospital for scalp stitches. The Governor was put to bed at the Executive Mansion a block away.”
Sullens was a Democrat and a white supremacist, of course, but he held some unexpected views. He always hated Bilbo, who struck him as a low-class crook. He loathed Communists (“sneaking Bolsheviki”), but he also disdained the widely popular Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s, writing once that its philosophical basis was little more than “flub-dub.” He worshipped Woodrow Wilson, partly because he had served under Wilson’s banner as an intelligence officer in Washington during World War I. (This was how Sullens picked up a nickname he cherished: Major.) He despised Herbert Hoover for supposedly being too liberal on race. Three days before the presidential election of 1928, the Jackson Daily News published a front-page cartoon showing an apelike black man chasing a terrified white girl off a cliff, with captions that said “Remember her at the polls!” and “Why the South is Democratic.”
By the summer of 1950, the Major, at seventy-two, was past his prime, a Santa-bellied figure with thin gray hair plastered down on a bumpy skull. But he was more than ready when the showdown with the CRC took shape. Within days of the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear McGee’s appeal, the CRC had sent out a call to “members of trade unions, church groups, negro people’s organizations and all Americans,” asking them to “write and wire Gov. Fielding Wright, Jackson, Miss., asking executive clemency for Willie McGee.” The response was impressive: By Wright’s own reckoning, he heard from 15,000 people before the summer was over. The weeks leading up to July 27 also saw an ominous flow of court maneuvers, blasphemous Yankee journalism, and rumors about mysterious CRC activity in Laurel and Jackson.
Some of McGee’s growing national support was little more than background noise, negated by its own shrillness. In the July 1950 issue of Music Business (“The Official Organ of the American Society of Disk Jockeys”), one broadcaster asked his fellow jocks to “boycott…or smash” copies of a popular Ella Fitzgerald song called “M.I.S.S.I.S.S.I.P.P.I.,” to convey their disgust with the state’s treatment of McGee. Though Fitzgerald was black and the song was an ode to the river, not to Mississippi’s racial caste system, its popularity was still unacceptable.
“There are some who will say we have no right in mixing up the legal lynching of a man with a song,” the writer argued. “In that case perhaps we should overlook the death and maiming of millions of Allied troops and write a love lyric to the melody of ‘Deutschland Uber Alles.’…”
Some of it had impact. Starting on June 14, the New York–based Compass started publishing its multipart McGee series. The articles were important because the Compass, unlike the Daily Worker, had a place in the mainstream, however tenuous. Its founder, Theodore O. Thackrey, had edited the New York Post. He launched the new “liberal crusading” paper in 1949 with a cash infusion from Mrs. Anita McCormick Blaine, a Chicago-based International Harvester heiress who, like Thackrey, had been a Henry Wallace supporter.
This isn’t to say the Compass was starchy. Accompanied by urgent display type (“Wife Tells of Frameup,” “The Invisible Bloodstains,” “‘In Sweatbox You Sign Anything’”), the stories were every bit as emotional as anything the Daily Worker published. They relied on interviews with Rosalee and Bessie McGee to convey the CRC’s defense of McGee as it existed in the summer of 1950. There were no public allegations about a love affair just yet; those came later. Instead, the attack was aimed at the implausibility of Mrs. Hawkins’s story and the physical abuse of McGee at the hands of his jailers.
“A white woman says she was ‘raped’ while her husband and children slept nearby,” read an editor’s introduction to the stories that ran on June 15. “She says it was pitch dark and she couldn’t see who attacked her, but that it was a Negro.
“The place is Laurel, Miss., and the white woman’s statement results in the arrest of Willie McGee on Nov. 3, 1945. For 33 days, McGee is held incommunicado, beaten, starved, tortured. He signs a confession.
“…In yesterday’s installment, [Mrs. Willie McGee] related how McGee was arrested and how, after ‘confessing,’ he was nearly lynched. THE COMPASS is presenting her story exactly as she related it, without altering her simple but eloquent language.”
Patterson knew the timing was perfect for protest action, and he alerted CRC chapters about the need to step it up. “The Willie McGee case is really beginning to boil now,” he wrote on July 12 to the Detroit branch. “Harvey McGehee, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Mississippi, has a letter in the [New York Compass] for Wednesday, the 12th…. He stated in the letter that he has been bombarded with telegrams, special delivery and air mail letters urging a new trial for Willie McGee. Well, this should be only the beginning. They should be literally deluged with this kind of material.”
For Sullens, red-alert time came with the CRC’s official mid-July announcement that activists from ten states would assemble in Jackson on July 25 to plead for clemency with Governor Wright. Patterson promised a delegation of seventy-five or so. The Reverend R. H. Harris, an African American who ran the CRC branch in Dallas, upped it, claiming that 1,000 people were on their way and that he was bringing a mixed-race group.
That day, the Major fired his opening volley, an editorial headlined “Communists Coming Here.” After brushing off Reverend Harris’s rhetoric as “gross exaggeration by a loose-lipped Negro,” he wrote, “For sublimated gall, triple-plated audacity, bold insolence and downright arrogance, this proposed invasion of the Capital City of our state by a gang of Communists truly passes all comprehension.
“These invaders are just as much enemies of the United States government as are soldiers fighting under the Communist banner in Korea—fighting with Russian arms and ammunition….
“[I]f any hotel in Jackson furnishes shelter for this motley crew,” he closed, “…then that hostelry should have the rooms they occupy thoroughly cleansed with the most powerful disinfectants.
“Carbolic acid and concentrated lye, combined with DDT, will hardly be adequate for the purpose.”
Abzug wasn’t happy about the protest plans, seeing them as a drag on her courtroom work. There was often friction between her and the CRC—in her oral history, she referred to the group’s members, only half-jokingly, as “lunatics” and “egomaniacs”—and she thought the clemency hearing was bad strategy. She’d seen enough of the South to know that verbal harangues from New York weren’t going to help. “It was a very explosive case,” she said, “and they didn’t give a damn what I thought should happen or how it should happen, even though I broke my neck to put it together, in a very hard way.”
William Patterson had his own complaints, once writing of Abzug, “She knew her law. She was, however, strong-willed and egotistical.” The tension points to an important reality about McGee’s defense: For better or worse, two people were in charge. Lacking Samuel Leibowitz’s experience and clout, Abzug wasn’t able to dictate terms about the wise use of protest machinery. Patterson, with his long history as a street fighter, figured he knew best when to twist the knobs.
For Abzug, Emanuel Bloch, and John Poole, the courtroom challenge was immediate and daunting: saving McGee from electrocution on the 27th. Having been rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, Abzug tried an unusual legal strategy, filing a petition for a writ of error coram nobis.
In a legal context, the phrase means “the error before us.” It refers to a rarely used plea, derived from English common law, in which a lawyer asks that a case be reopened on the grounds that significant mistakes occurred during earlier trials and judgments, usually owing to incompetence, fraud, or suppressed evidence. Sacco and Vanzetti’s lawyers filed a coram nobis plea in 1927, but the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts rejected it, calling the doctrine “obsolete.” It was used during long-after-the-fact appeals in cases involving Alger Hiss’s perjury conviction, Watergate burglar Frank Sturgis, and Japanese internment during World War II. But in 1950 coram nobiswasn’t recognized in federal procedures, a position that remained in place until 1954.
In the McGee petition, filed in the Jones County Circuit Court on July 21, his lawyers argued that virtually everything about the first three trials was a sham. They recapped the familiar list of problems: the mob atmosphere, the all-white juries, the third-trial rush job, the coerced confession, and the threat of violence that prompted Poole and London to leave town. They didn’t spell out the affair allegation, but they hinted at it, saying that prosecutors had used “perjured testimony as to the essential charge of rape….” This testimony “was submitted by the complaining witness with the knowledge that it was false and that she was not raped by the defendant….”
The meaning of that was murky. Was this Dixon Pyles’s old argument that Mrs. Hawkins’s “failure to resist” amounted to legal consent? Or was it something new?
A story in the Laurel Leader-Call tried to read the tea leaves, saying the argument was thought to be based on McGee’s claim that he’d worked as a yardman in the Hawkins’s neighborhood, and on his assertion that he “met and knew the ravished woman long before the night of the rape.” But that too was unclear.
Paul Swartzfager’s answer, filed the next day, denied all the major claims, including things that were obviously true—one being that the case generated angry emotions among the Laurel public. It had, and on the 21st—when Poole and Bloch traveled to Laurel to submit the petition’s paperwork—it did again.
In subsequent sworn statements, Poole and Bloch said they tried to file their petition at the Jones County Courthouse just before noon, after coming down from Jackson by car. The circuit clerk said they would have to deliver it themselves to Judge Collins, who was sitting on the bench in Hattiesburg. They made the trip, weren’t able to find Collins, and drove back, getting additional runarounds in Laurel. Poole finally reached Collins by phone at his home, and the judge set a time for argument on the petition: 9 a.m. the next day.
According to Poole, as he and Bloch left the courthouse, he was approached and attacked by Troy Hawkins. “He was very angry when he saw me and called me ‘a dirty son of a bitch,’” Poole said. “Almost simultaneously he lunged at me in a threatening manner, but I was able to side step him. He then swung with his right hand at my face and I successfully ducked this blow.”
Poole climbed into the car with Bloch and tried to drive away. Hawkins got in his car too, and to Poole this was a sign that he intended to “follow me and cause trouble.” Poole and Bloch got out of their car and tried to get assistance from Laurel officials, including Mayor Carroll Gartin, who refused them. Poole said Gartin was hostile, telling him “he would not believe me on a stack of bibles,” and that Poole was on his own.
Eventually, Poole and Bloch made it out of town. Back in Jackson, they conferred with Abzug and decided it wasn’t safe to return. Poole called Collins on the morning of the 22nd, asking that the hearing be moved out of Laurel. Collins said no.
Poole then called Governor Wright, who agreed to an impromptu hearing on whether Poole deserved state protection in Laurel. Poole, Bloch, and Abzug met with Wright and other officials, asking for a state escort. They were denied again, and they didn’t go back to Laurel the next day.
In Laurel, Collins dismissed the petition for “lack of prosecution,” and a Jones County judge named B. Frank Carter swore out a statement saying that Poole was lying, that he’d seen Poole and Hawkins cross paths at the courthouse and nothing happened. Back in Jackson, Laurel officials countered with an aggressive play of their own. Gartin, Swartzfager, Albert Easterling, and E. K. Collins filed a petition with the Mississippi State Bar Association to have Poole disbarred for consorting with “subversive and Communistic elements.”
Jackson had gotten a paint job since Sullens took his first doubtful look in 1897. By 1950 it was a rapidly growing city with a metropolitan-area population of 142,000. The influx came mainly from in-state immigration and the baby boom, as people of both races left farms and small towns to benefit from an expanding urban economy. In an early 1950s report in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, Jackson-based reporter Kenneth Toler assessed the growth with pride, harking back to the Civil War ransacking as he wrote, “The chimneys of destruction…have become the smokestacks of a new industrial empire.”
That was a stretch. Jackson never became an industrial center on the order of Memphis or New Orleans, but there had been significant development, which Toler illustrated with upbeat statistics: Retail spending had quadrupled since 1940; several new hospitals and schools were under construction; and “195 diversified industries [are] now operating in the manufacture of about 300 different products.”
Downtown Jackson was an attractive, orderly grid bordered by State Street to the east and Mill Street to the west. Pascagoula Street to the south and High Street to the north formed a rough rectangle that contained most of the city’s hotels, public buildings, churches, and stores. Much more so than today, central Jackson in 1950 hummed with businesses. On Capitol Street alone—the half-mile-long main commercial drag, which ran east to west past the antebellum governor’s mansion—there were five movie theaters, more than a dozen places to eat, and at least eighty clothing and jewelry stores.
Two blocks north of the mansion stood the state capitol building—called the “New Capitol” to distinguish it from the Greek Revival “Old Capitol” that it had replaced in 1903. Its architectural style was similar to that of the U.S. Capitol, scaled to about half the size. One of its most striking features is a central interior dome that rises to 180 feet, its arches illuminated by hundreds of fat, round lightbulbs that cast a warm glow on plaque-mounted depictions of “Blind Justice.”
Elsewhere downtown, rising over everything, were several landmark office buildings and hotels, including the eighteen-story Tower Building (an art deco structure renamed the Standard Life Building in 1952); and “Jackson’s first skyscraper,” the ten-story Lamar Life building, completed in 1925 and built under the watch of Christian Welty, an insurance company executive and the father of Eudora Welty. The most notable hotels were the Edwards, the Heidelberg, the Robert E. Lee, and the Walthall—each with at least 200 rooms. Blocky buildings that jutted above low-slung downtown stores, they were emblems of a time when every city worth its salt had central lodgings that functioned as one-stop business and leisure depots. Heidelberg stationery from that era boasted of “Night club dancing and broadcasting in the sky…South’s most beautiful ladies’ lounge, see the mural…Garage capacity 500 cars, none other like it.”
“An asset to…Jackson, the Hotel Heidelberg offers the finest in hotel convention facilities and hospitality and comfort to its guests,” said the author of The Story of Jackson, a civic history published in 1951. “The entire organization reflects the true hospitable spirit of the city….”
It was all strictly segregated, of course. Only a few blocks from the New Capitol, west and northwest, stood a separate district of relatively plain—and sometimes ramshackle—residences, businesses, and churches. Its namesake thoroughfare, Farish Street, was the main artery of African-American life in Jackson. Between 1948 and 1951, Rosalee McGee lived at three different addresses in the Farish Street neighborhood, which was also home to Percy Greene’s weekly newspaper, the Jackson Advocate.
Greene had been involved in the CRC’s anti-Bilbo campaign in 1946 and was still serving as the go-between for its dealings with Rosalee. (She reconnected with him right after her return from Washington.) But he seemed to be losing his taste for the McGee cause, at least publicly. Greene was no radical to begin with—he was the go-slow type, closer in spirit to Booker T. Washington than William Patterson—and he was rattled by the coming of the CRC because its Communist ties were politically dangerous. In an Advocate editorial published a few days before the clemency hearing, he held out a stiff arm for all to see, writing that the CRC “is not going to do any good for the case of Willie McGee, and it would be just as well if all the delegates planning to come to Mississippi would stay at home.”
July 25, a Tuesday, was a bright, hot, humid day in Jackson, with a possibility of afternoon thunderstorms and a 100 percent chance of midday shouting. City officials were flexing as if an army of Visigoths were coming. Police Chief Joel D. Holden canceled all vacations and days off, while American Legion posts in Jackson and Laurel pledged to help maintain order against any “subversive and communist individuals.” Governor Wright issued a statement letting the CRC delegates know they’d better behave. He dismissed their pleas in advance as “lies and propaganda.”
Amid the drumbeats, there were even rumors of Ku Klux Klan activity, which was unusual. The Klan was a national force in the 1920s, and it would be important again in the 1960s. But in 1950 it was a marginal outfit, treated as a joke by Mississippi journalists. On July 17, 1950, an A.P. story outlined a Klan power struggle going on in Jackson between Dr. Lycurgus Spinks, a “white-maned” eccentric who ran for governor in 1947, and Thomas J. Flowers, a retired New York policeman originally from Mississippi. In late May, Spinks held a small rally at his “white frame ‘Imperial Palace’” on the outskirts of Jackson—“the first Klan extravaganza here in the memory of veteran newsmen,” the story said—but it was a weak display. Policemen told Spinks he couldn’t burn a cross on his lawn, so he didn’t. Among the spectators was a “Negro boy [who] watched wide-eyed without being molested.”
The FBI wasn’t so sure the Klan was irrelevant. Throughout the five-day period bracketing the 25th, as the situation in Jackson shifted from unruly to dangerous, agents and informants circulated throughout the city, taking notes, hanging out in government buildings and hotel lobbies, and writing reports. The Bureau’s file on the McGee case contains dozens of revealing pages about the events that ensued, including a detailed, unsigned summary document that says the FBI believed local Klansmen were responsible. Whether these were Spinks men, Flowers men, or unaffiliated freelancers remains unknown. After all these years, the names of any alleged Klansmen are still blacked out.
As it happened, Reverend Harris’s thousand-man army never materialized. The CRC had negotiated with Governor Wright, who agreed to grant an audience to a manageably sized group, numbering around a dozen, which consisted of liberal Democrats, former Wallace supporters, and even a Communist or two—though nobody advertised that affiliation. Behind the scenes, there were a few black CRC members in Jackson that week, but everybody who appeared before Wright was white, including the delegation’s leader, CRC attorney Aubrey Grossman.
There were several women, among them the most prominent delegate, Dr. Gene Weltfish, a Columbia University anthropologist who had studied under the late Franz Boas, an early proponent of the scientific view that no race was inherently inferior. Weltfish’s research specialties were the customs and languages of Indian tribes like the Pawnee, but she became well known for a 1943 pamphlet called The Races of Mankind, which she co-wrote with her Columbia colleague Ruth Benedict. Using plain language to describe contemporary research into human traits like skin color, cranial shape, and intelligence scores, Races championed Boas’s egalitarian racial views against the backdrop of World War II, at a time when America’s stance on race was painfully contorted—given that the government was condemning Hitler even as it sent a segregated army to fight him.
“All races of man are shoulder to shoulder,” the pamphlet said.
“Our armed forces are in North Africa with its Negro, Berber, and Near-East peoples. They are in India. They are in China. They are in the Solomons with its dark-skinned, ‘strong’-haired Melanesians. Our neighbors now are peoples of all the races of the earth.”
Races was supposed to be a unifying propaganda tool, countering Nazi superman theories, but American race theories killed its chances of becoming a government publication. Both the USO and the army decided against distributing the pamphlet, because Southern congressmen raised so much hell over some of its contents.
The problem was Benedict and Weltfish’s argument about intelligence, which they said was influenced more by opportunity than by skin color. Citing 1917 test results from black and white soldiers in the American Expeditionary Force, they pointed out that blacks from New York, Illinois, and Ohio outscored whites from Mississippi, Kentucky, and Arkansas. This happened, they said, because the Northern blacks in the sample generally had better access to education. They tried to put it delicately—“Negroes with better luck after they were born got higher scores than Whites with less luck”—but this still infuriated powerful Southern legislators like Kentucky’s Andrew J. May, chair of the House Committee on Military Affairs.
The clemency delegation’s rank and file also included less prominent people who were picked because they were young, idealistic, and clean-cut. Frank Stoll was a former bomber pilot, originally from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, who had flown some forty-five combat missions in the South Pacific. He and his wife, Anne, met in Chicago after the war and fell in with a group of progressives centered at the University of Wisconsin, among them Lorraine Hansberry, the African-American poet and dramatist who would later write A Raisin in the Sun. Sidney Ordower was a veteran from Chicago who had fought in Normandy, where he won a purple heart as an infantry captain. Among his interests, Ordower was a gospel music lover; he became a Chicago fixture in later years by hosting a TV program called Jubilee Showcase.
Some of the delegates were fated for Red Scare conflicts with the federal government as the 1950s ground on. In 1952, Weltfish was attacked for stating publicly that the United States was using germ warfare in Korea, which echoed the propaganda of the Soviet Union. That year, she told a Senate subcommittee that all she’d done was hand out a statement from a Canadian peace activist who had made the charge, but she refused to answer questions about whether she agreed with this claim or had ever been a Communist. Columbia’s trustees weren’t pleased. Though they denied that politics were a factor, they terminated her contract as a lecturer in 1953.
Another woman in the group was Winifred Feise, who still had clear memories of the clemency hearing when I interviewed her by phone in 2005. Feise was a former New Yorker who, at the time of the hearing, was living in New Orleans with her husband, Richard Feise. They’d moved there when Richard took a wartime job with Higgins Industries, builder of PT boats and the Higgins boat, a landing craft used on D-day. Both had been involved in leftist politics since college, and both would wind up on the government’s watch list of suspected subversives. In New Orleans, they got to know activists like Oakley Johnson, an English instructor who’d been fired from New York’s City College because of his left-wing political beliefs, and James A. Dombrowski, who was director of the Southern Conference for Human Welfare, an interracial progressive group.
Up until the summer of 1950, Winifred Feise hadn’t paid much attention to the McGee case. But the CRC needed bodies in the field, so she signed up. Before going to Jackson for the hearing, she’d been part of a small group that went to Laurel from New Orleans to knock on doors and ask questions about Mrs. Hawkins. These visits were noticed, and the visitors’ movements were reported in Laurel and Jackson newspapers. On July 14 the Laurel Leader-Call published sketchy details about “two men and two women” who turned up in the Magnolia Street neighborhood looking for evidence that McGee had done yard work on the Hawkins’s block. A man named F. S. Ford said the strangers were told repeatedly that McGee was a truck driver, not a yard man, but they persisted. As the story suggestively put it, “The men who accompanied the two women remained in a high-powered and expensive automobile as the contacts were made at the doors of the homes within the crime vicinity.”
Winifred was in that group, and she remembered knocking on the door of the Hawkins’s next-door neighbor, the Jensens. While the men talked to Mrs. Jensen, Winifred carefully studied the driveway between the Jensen and Hawkins homes. It was her understanding that Mrs. Jensen had testified that she saw McGee run down this driveway during his escape.
That’s not quite right, but Winifred seemed certain that this was part of the prosecution’s case. “The whole story was made up anyway,” she told me. “These two, this woman and McGee, had known each other since they were kids playing on the tracks and stuff. At least that’s the story we had. He had an affair with her. Nobody ever denied that. It was not a rape.”
On the morning of the clemency hearing, Feise came up by train from New Orleans, arriving with another woman, Martha Wheeler, at the Illinois Central Depot, a sturdy brick building on Mill Street, in the shadow of the Hotel Edwards. Walking east into the heart of downtown, she was armored against the day in a sundress and wide-brimmed straw hat.
“We put on our gloves and our hats and knew that we had to behave and be good,” she recalled. “The few blacks who were on the street saw us coming and nodded or blinked or let us make eye contact to let us know that they knew we were there. It was an absolutely eerie and amazing sensation and experience.”
When the women got to their hotel, the Heidelberg, a surprise was waiting. Feise assumed the meeting would take place in some nondescript state office building, but she was told Governor Wright had decided on a fancier setting—the house of representatives chamber in the New Capitol. The hearing was going to be a public show.
Some 150 to 200 people assembled in the house chamber at 11 a.m. Roughly 25 CRC members were on hand, 10 of them serving as official delegates, but only 4 men and 2 women ended up speaking. Abzug wasn’t there. She’d done her part the day before, when she, along with Poole and Bloch, argued the error coram nobis petition before the Mississippi Supreme Court. Chief Justice Harvey McGehee turned it down on the morning of the 25th, by which time Abzug was already in Washington, preparing to ask for a last-minute stay of execution from the U.S. Supreme Court. McGehee said the defense was offering no new evidence for its claim that Mrs. Hawkins had perjured herself. He called the charge “wholly unsupported by any proof other than that the petitioner himself had sworn to such general allegation.”
Along with local and regional reporters, the Northern press was represented by John Popham of the New York Times, Stephen Fischer of the Compass, and Harry Raymond of the Daily Worker. A Jackson Daily Newsphotograph taken that morning showed Raymond, with a sly look on his face, walking into the house chamber—next to Governor Wright, Chief Justice McGehee, Attorney General John Kyle, and Colonel T. B. Birdsong, the state commissioner of public safety.
A caption identified Raymond as a reporter for “the Daily Worker of New York, a Communist publication,” but that didn’t quite cover it. In fact, he was exactly the kind of person Fred Sullens was so worried about: an old-school Communist agitator, one who used journalism the same way Sullens did—as a tool for advancing his political beliefs, often at the expense of accuracy. Raymond’s real name was Harold J. Lightcap. During his long career on the left he’d done time for violent rioting in Union Square (he was arrested in 1930 along with Communist leader William Z. Foster), had reportedly served prior sentences for burglary and auto theft, and had been married to a radical labor organizer from Russia, Rose Nelson (aka Rose Lightcap), who was indicted in 1950 on a trumped-up charge of conspiracy to overthrow the U.S. government. As a Daily Worker reporter, Raymond was tireless and fearless, a hard-drinking man who’d covered everything from the race riots in Columbia, Tennessee, to the Willie Earle lynching to the Smith Act trials.
The house chamber was an ornate space with high ceilings, dark furniture, and a color scheme that bathed its inhabitants in soft light. The CRC delegates were seated in big swivel chairs on the front row of the legislators’ floor area, facing a lectern with a microphone. Wright and McGehee sat in the second row, interrupting when they felt like it—which was often—through mikes mounted at their desks. Spread out in seats behind the main group, or leaning against walls, were dozens of local spectators, American Legionnaires, and even a reputed Klansman or two—many of them visibly hostile to the visitors from the North.
The hearing lasted just over two hours. Dressed in a wide-lapeled suit, his graying hair slicked down on the sides, Aubrey Grossman led off, starting out calmly but getting frustrated as it became obvious that his arguments weren’t doing any good. “[Grossman] delivered the opening address in tempered language,” Popham wrote in the Times, “but…made the closing talk in a shouting voice, and was shaking his finger at Chief Justice Harvey McGehee….”
Both sides contributed to the futility of what took place, but much of the blame goes to Governor Wright, who had no interest in a productive discussion. In essence, the hearing was a strategic (and effective) means of bottling up the opposition while giving the appearance of fair play. He’d managed it so that there were only a handful of CRC delegates in town. Now he had them cooped up in a government building, a setting he controlled, instead of marching around on the streets.
On the CRC’s side of the gap, there were two problems. At least one person in the group should have taken the time to read the transcript of the third trial, which was stored right there in the capitol. Judging by the back-and-forth that day, it’s apparent that the delegates gleaned their knowledge of the case almost entirely from newspaper stories or, as Winifred Feise had done, from word of mouth. “Some claimed they had read portions of the record,” a Jackson Daily News story said, “but admitted that what they read was printed either in the leftist newspaper, the Daily Compass, or in Civil Rights publications.” The group’s skimpy knowledge base left them vulnerable when Wright and McGehee, lawyers both, pounded them about not having their facts straight.
The other problem was the same thing that hobbled Abzug, something that only she or Patterson had the power to change. The CRC kept implying that it had electrifying new evidence proving that Mrs. Hawkins had lied. But they wouldn’t say what it was, insisting that the place to do that was inside a courtroom during a fourth trial. Grossman ran into this wall almost immediately.
“Let me make this clear,” he said. “We feel positively, definitely, strongly that Willie McGee is innocent. And an innocent man should not die…. The evidence, excluding the confession, is meaningless. As time passes, facts will come out to show Willie McGee is innocent.”
What facts? He didn’t say, so his plea came down to telling hostile state officials that they were cruel and unfair. Grossman threw in a general indictment of Mississippi itself, touching on Jim Crow laws, lynchings and legal lynchings, and the state’s racist congressional delegation. He said it was “no accident” that the McGee case happened in the home state of a man like Representative John Rankin, whose ideas were “totally false.”
Wright bristled. “I assume that your group came in good faith to present reasons why I should stay the execution of Willie McGee,” he said. “You have criticized everything, including the administration of justice in the state of Mississippi. I’m not going to have any more criticisms of our courts, of our customs. Stick to this case!”
It went like that with speaker after speaker. Frank Stoll, the veteran from Wisconsin, said he didn’t know all the facts but asked that the state allow a new trial anyway, one “where there isn’t a mob yelling outside.”
Ordower also admitted he hadn’t read the transcript, but said that basic knowledge of the trial was enough to show any thinking person that the evidence was inadequate.
McGehee peppered him with questions about the trial, touching on fine-point details like the break-in method used by the rapist and the location of the parked grocery truck. Ordower replied that everything introduced by the prosecution was “very circumstantial evidence.” He happened to be right, unless you counted the confession, which McGehee certainly did. He reminded Ordower that it was, after all, his court that had recognized the confession’s legitimacy. Did Ordower not understand that it was judges who decide whether a confession was free and voluntary?
During her turn, Weltfish tried an anthropological argument, which came off as condescending. She told Wright and McGehee that their “customs and background” made it impossible for them to look rationally at a rape case involving a black man and a white woman. “Your stresses and anxieties don’t permit for objectivity,” she said.
“It is your opinion that there should be no death penalty for rape?” Wright asked.
Weltfish answered with a question. “Do you know how many places in the world rape is punished by death?”
“I don’t, but I’m not interested,” Wright said. “I’m interested only in Mississippi law.”
“Has a white man ever been condemned to death for rape in this state?”
“I don’t know. But it wouldn’t make any difference.”
Wright also attacked Rosalee McGee’s trustworthiness. During his heated exchanges with Feise, he made it clear that he knew Rosalee wasn’t Willie’s first spouse. He referred to the Compass stories as “a pack of lies written by Willie McGee’s so-called wife.”
“Is she not Willie McGee’s wife?” Feise said.
“I don’t know which one she is,” Wright countered.
Feise got some licks in too, shocking the audience with the audacity of her questions. “It was obvious throughout that Mrs. Feise…disturbed Gov. Wright and his supporters most deeply,” Fischer wrote in the Compass. While some women “turned their heads or hid their faces in handkerchiefs,” Feise said she’d given the entire controversy deep consideration—from a woman’s perspective. Though she was thin herself, it was her belief that Mrs. Hawkins should have, and could have, fought off the rapist.
“Could I allow myself to be raped in bed with one of my children by my side?” she asked. “Just lie there and let myself be raped? If so, it would mean that I permitted it.” After the gasps died down, Feise scandalized the crowd again with questions about such topics as Mrs. Hawkins’s menstrual period.
When the time came for a final appeal, Grossman collected his thoughts and asked Wright to issue a stay. “I’m saying to you, Governor, unless you have some interest in putting McGee to death immediately, what human hurt can be done to delay it, so people throughout the world will never say you refused to grant a stay when McGee’s attorneys assure you they have new evidence to present? I ask only for a stay so the evidence can be presented and the issue proved.”
No chance. “The meeting is adjourned,” Wright said. Then he got up and left.
As the gathering dispersed, Fischer heard ominous sounds from a spectator: “I never did believe I would see a thing like this in all my life, arguing and shaking fingers at the governor in public.” The meeting, he wrote, ended in “an angry and tense atmosphere.”
The tensions boiled over quickly. The FBI report said that about one hundred people, upset by what they’d just witnessed, followed some of the CRC delegates back to the Heidelberg. Later in the afternoon, a few unnamed delegates were walking through the hotel lobby when an “aged Jacksonian” decided he couldn’t take it anymore. He ran up and swatted them with a newspaper.
That was harmless, but by the end of the day on the 26th, three separate episodes of real violence had taken place. One of them, an attack against Aubrey Grossman inside his room at the Heidelberg, could have ended with serious injury or death.
The journalists in town reported these events in tune with their newspapers’ tones and political stances. Popham discreetly placed details of the attacks in the bottom half of a Times story. The Jackson Daily News thought it was all very cute: “Willie McGee Defenders ‘Mussed Up’ In Three Fist Fight Disturbances,” a typical headline said. And both the Daily Worker and the Compass made it sound as if severed human heads were bouncing off the pavement.
“Jackson streets began to look like violent wards of a madhouse,” wrote Harry Raymond, who, understandably, felt threatened by the presence of roving groups of anti-Communist vigilantes. Raymond was staying at the Robert E. Lee. Late in the afternoon of the 25th, he wrote, a friend called and “suggested I get out of my hotel room. He said: ‘They are coming up to get you.’
“My friend, a local white man, said he heard a group talking about getting the Daily Worker man. He insisted I go with him and stay the night under his roof, leaving my bag and typewriter in the hotel.
“Today I feel deeply indebted to this fine Mississippi citizen.”
Raymond’s counterpart at the Compass, Stephen Fischer, wasn’t as lucky. He and a group that included Winifred Feise and Sidney Ordower were at the Illinois Central station around 8:30 p.m. on the 25th, waiting to put the New Orleans women on a southbound train, when they were surrounded by what Fischer described as a band of twenty men, some holding wrenches.
“The train was announced and we filed out and walked up to the platform,” Fischer wrote the next day from New Orleans. “As we did, the men closed in, some shouting obscenities, others walking with determined silence. Some were drunk. Some were only 20 years old. Others were about 60. One threw a lighted cigarette which hit me on the cheek….
“About 20 of the crowd ringed me, forced me down the platform and closed in with blows and kicks. I blocked some, but not all. My greatest fear was being tossed under the train or forced off the platform.”
The women and Ordower were left unharmed. A few minutes into the attack, a policeman showed up, the men scattered, and Fischer and the women got on the train. Fischer was so shaken up that he took his Compasscredentials and “flushed them to the tracks.” He had no doubt that the Compass series, along with the various editorial incitements in Jackson newspapers, had gotten him singled out for the beating.
Ordower was attacked later that night at the municipal airport, three miles northwest of the city center. He went there with John Poole, who had been in New Orleans working on a plea to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which failed. Ordower was heading back to Chicago; Poole was on his way to Washington to help with the final appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
They traveled by cab from the Heidelberg, and they were met at the airport by what the Jackson Daily News described as “eight to ten men dressed in white sport shirts.” Ordower was pulled out of the car, beaten, and kicked, and Poole ducked a couple of punches. The police weren’t around to stop the assault, but the attackers voluntarily took off after landing a few blows.
Both incidents gave off a similar feel: They were well organized, and the violence was limited by the attackers themselves. Whoever was behind them knew when and where to find the CRC delegates. According to the FBI report, Grossman believed that Jackson police were tipping attackers off about their movements. After midnight on the 26th, Ordower called the U.S. Attorney’s office in Jackson to register a complaint along similar lines. Grossman followed up and demanded federal action and arrests. Nothing came of any of it.
Grossman’s turn came on Wednesday. He was still at the Heidelberg, where his day began with a 9 a.m. visit from an official delegation that included Governor Wright, the Jackson chief of police, and the chief of the state highway patrol. Wright strongly suggested that Grossman get out of town. Grossman told Wright he had legal business to attend to and demanded law enforcement protection while he did his job.
He didn’t get any help, and everything changed in a flash that afternoon. In Washington, Justice Harold Burton had spent the morning reading written arguments filed by McGee’s attorneys and by the state of Mississippi. Abzug and Poole presented oral arguments in Burton’s chambers starting around noon, opposed by R. O. Arrington, Mississippi’s assistant attorney general. Poole argued that the recent violence in Jackson and the intimidation he received in Laurel were proof enough that a new trial was needed.
“[Poole] spoke with emotion as he related, again and again, how tense feelings in Mississippi [are], and how it has grown worse in recent weeks after incitement by the Jackson Daily News,” wrote the Compass’s Katherine Gillman. Abzug went next, arguing again that the defense had new evidence. When presented at a new trial, it would prove that the prosecution had purposely lied about the facts of the case.
Burton listened quietly, taking notes on a legal pad in a precise, tiny script. These show that Abzug and Poole revealed a little more about their new information than they had done in Mississippi. “[Petitioner]…claims newly discovered evidence that McGee had previously had relations with the prosecutrix and is not guilty,” Burton wrote.
He made the call at 1:05 p.m., Eastern time. “No criticism of the courts of Mississippi [is] intended by the decision I am about to make,” he said. “But the ends of justice shall best be served by granting a stay of execution until the request for a writ certiorari is disposed of by this court.”
A telegram went out to Mississippi attorney general John Kyle within minutes. In short order, news of the stay made its way around Jackson. Rosalee McGee was with Percy Greene when she heard. She and a couple of CRC people, both white, walked to a cafe and made a phone call to Laurel—probably to Bessie McGee. Later, a policeman came in and warned them that they shouldn’t be sitting at the same restaurant table.
That afternoon, Grossman was in his room when he heard a knock on the door. Whoever it was said “Western Union,” and he bought it, opening the door to yet another traveling beatdown. “[E]ight men pushed in and immediately started attacking me,” he told reporters later. “All but the well-dressed leader were swinging black jacks—police blackjacks.” He said he was roughed up for ten minutes (“I was a bloody mess—bleeding from a half dozen cuts on my head”) when the men stopped of their own accord and left.
Who did it? The Jackson papers were in a mood to applaud, not investigate, and the left-wing papers couldn’t do anything but howl from afar. The most detailed information shows up in the FBI report. Whoever compiled it—the agent just calls himself “this writer”—was either personally present for, or had sources at, all the major events that week. He and his associates gathered newsworthy material that was never published anywhere.
The agent attended the coram nobis hearing before the Mississippi Supreme Court, summarized the clemency hearing in the capitol building, and reported on the attacks at the train station and airport. When news broke about the stay, he was moving around on the streets downtown and inside the Heidelberg lobby. There, he saw unmistakable signs of trouble—and he named names, but they remain blacked out.
“Throughout the morning and early afternoon…[I] observed——, the head of the Ku Klux Klan in Jackson, Mississippi, accompanied by two or three men, in and out of the Heidelberg Hotel.——had also been observed by the writer and——at both the Supreme Court hearing…and the Governor’s hearing….
“At approximately 2 p.m. on July 26, 1950,” he went on, “the writer observed two men, both of whom were strangers, go up to the Desk Clerk at the Heidelberg Hotel and ask if AUBREY GROSSMAN were registered at the hotel. When told that he was, the men inquired as to his room number, which they wrote down on a slip of paper, and immediately left.”
This agent had a hands-off attitude about the CRC delegation: His only job was to monitor the activity of suspected Communists. Still, his attitude at this moment seems awfully cold-blooded. For all he knew, he had just witnessed the first step in a murder plot. But he chose to believe what he’d been told by an informant on the 25th: The attacks were “movie” fights that were probably “staged by the CRC delegates themselves for propaganda purposes.”
The agent was at a downtown post office when he heard, at 3:55 p.m., that a woman staying in a room near Grossman’s had called the police to report a disturbance. When detectives arrived, they found Grossman staggering around in the hall, “very bloody, waving a table lamp in his hand.” Before long, the hotel physician looked him over, after which he was then taken by ambulance to the Baptist Hospital, where he was X-rayed and treated. Cuts over his left eye and on the right side of his head were patched up.
The FBI agent still seemed to think it was a put-on, that Grossman had smeared blood on his face to hype his injuries. But the report indicates otherwise. As Grossman tried to defend himself, he backed into the bathroom for what, as far as he knew, might be his last stand. The agent was told that “there were handprints in blood on the wall” and that the bathroom “was smeared up very much with blood spots on the walls, bathroom fixtures, etc.”
As the agent reported, there was one other outbreak of violence that week. Around midnight on Wednesday, a gun battle broke out that involved an attack by Klansmen on a white citizen of Jackson. It happened several miles north of town on a rural route called Pocahontas Road. Neither the local papers nor the FBI figured out who was behind it. The agent’s best guess was that the attacks on the CRC delegates spilled over into late-night celebrations, drinking, and a need to find somebody else to rough up.
Leonard R. Walters, a truck driver for a concrete company, told police that, right around midnight, he heard a racket in his front yard—“It sounded like a war out there”—and he looked out through a screen door to see hooded men setting up a cross. They were firing pistols and calling his name, so he yelled back, asking what they wanted. They wanted him to go for a ride. He refused. Suddenly, his neighbor, a carpenter named O. L. Bradley, came charging out of his house, letting the intruders have it with a pump shotgun.
“The outlaws fled through a cornfield,” the Jackson Daily News reported, “and Bradley then got an old Japanese rifle he had in the house and continued to fire at the fleeing bed-sheeted group.”
Bradley felt sure he’d hit somebody. He told law enforcement officials that he saw one man go down before running off. Later, a mechanic named R. L. Sheppard showed up at a Jackson hospital with pellets in his left eye, left hand, forehead, and face. He denied knowing who shot him or why. A car was shot up too.
It seemed likely that Tom Flowers, the rival of Lycurgus Spinks for control of the local Klan, had something to do with all this, since he was a more effective leader. But he assured the Jackson Daily News that this was probably the work of an outlaw Klan faction, or of outright imposters. “We don’t do business that way,” he said.